The beauty of the road
In western Norway, human ingenuity and nature at its most dramatic have combined to create some of the most challenging and exciting roads in the world. We took the new S60 to meet them.
The road, in its purest form, is simply a connection from one place to another. Yet it can be so much more. In the right location, in the right car, it can be a state of mind – a connection between person and place. Even a thing of beauty. In western Norway the road is all of these, and more. Here, roads twist and turn, rise and fall, leaping suddenly through deep tunnels, over huge bridges or into dark forests. It’s a place where yet another breathtaking view always seems to be just around the corner or over the next hill. If you’re looking to reignite the romance of driving – where it’s just you, the car and the road – then this is the place you should come to. Especially if, like us, you can experience this unique roadscape in the S60, Volvo Cars’ new sports sedan.
We’re driving two stretches of road that have been named among the most exciting, fun and challenging in the world. Separated by just over 100km, the twisting mountain pass of Trollstigen and the rollercoaster-like Atlantic Ocean Road are comparatively short sections of road, but they have become destinations in themselves. People come here from all over the world to experience them. Our aim is to take in both roads, pursuing any interesting-looking diversions along the way. Above all, we’re here to enjoy the drive.
Our starting point, Trollstigen, is a mountain road that zig-zags its way up and down a steep valley. Opened in 1936, the road climbs to 850 metres above sea level at its highest point. The scenery is spectacular, all rocky slopes and – at least when we’re visiting it – snowy peaks and glowering late autumn sky. As we head down the pass, I reflect on how the drive here has highlighted the finer points of the S60 – its superbly comfortable seats, for example, and a centre touchscreen that’s as sleek to behold as it is easy to use. I’ve also found out just how quick the T6 R-Design model we’re driving is. The answer is – in the right circumstances, of course – ‘very’.
Now I get the chance to experience this dynamic sedan on the ten per cent incline and 11 hairpins of Trollstigen. John, our photographer, insists that I make repeated journeys up and down the switchbacks and short, tight straights for the camera. I’m happy to oblige, because driving this car here is a joy. The S60 feels supremely poised and, as the corners come thick and fast, I use the steering wheel paddles to shift up and down through the gears. This is a car built for driving pleasure. Double wishbone front suspension helps to give precise handling, while Volvo Cars’ innovative integral rear suspension keeps weight to a minimum, boosting agility and responsiveness.
Trollstigen is a place where you can really make the most of the drive modes in the S60. This feature allows you to tailor the way the engine, automatic gearbox, steering, brakes and stability control system respond. I select Dynamic mode and enjoy the feeling as it subtly sharpens the car’s responses to add some extra ‘bite’ through the bends. There’s a satisfying sense of connection to the road, and I’m unfazed by the precipitous drop on the other side of the barrier, such is the feeling of control the S60 gives me. In fact, the biggest danger here is the view. Each turn yields another distracting glimpse of the valley stretched out below and of the road itself, looping back and forth like a coil of cooked spaghetti.
I keep my eyes on the road and, all too soon, we’re leaving Trollstigen behind, twisting and turning through a wooded valley. I select Individual drive mode, which I’ve already set to my own combination of characteristics – ‘dynamic’ for the steering and ‘comfort’ for the suspension. It’s a mix that suits the drive perfectly, smoothing out a road surface that has been scarred by biting Norwegian winters, yet giving me keen responses as I turn the wheel.
As we approach the town of Andalsnes we decide to take a detour to Trollveggen – the ‘Troll Wall’. The road is wide and clear, giving the S60 a chance to stretch its legs, and a chance for me to select Comfort mode. This optimises the car’s settings to make it an even more comfortable cruiser. Progress is effortless and swift, and Trollveggen’s vast bulk soon dominates the view. The tallest vertical rock face in Europe, it’s another example of the massive scale of the landscape in this part of Norway, and the feeling of being at the mercy of nature. Cosseted safely in the luxurious interior of the S60, we turn back on ourselves and head for our stopover destination, the city of Molde.
We set off before dawn the next day. It’s cold and wet outside, but the beautifully-crafted cabin of the S60 makes the journey something to look forward to, and the standard all-wheel drive of the T6 model provides reassuring traction as we negotiate the slippery roads out of Molde. Heading north, the scenery is less dramatic than it was yesterday but as daylight creeps over the horizon, majestic mountains and lakes loom into view. This is a place with a seemingly infinite ability to stir the emotions.
By the time we reach the town of Vevang, the sky seems to open up, telling us that we are nearing the edge of the land. And then, ahead of us, we see it – the unmistakable outline of the Storseisundet Bridge. Just as suddenly, the road dips and the bridge disappears from view. Eager to reach it now, I press on the accelerator and the T6 engine responds powerfully. We round a few more corners, and the houses on either side of the road begin to thin out. Suddenly water surrounds us. This is the Atlantic Ocean Road – an 8.3 kilometre-long tribute to ingenuity and determination. Built over the course of six years and opened in 1986, it connects a group of islands to the mainland, putting road where once there was only water.
The road itself is remarkable, but Storseisundet Bridge is its centrepiece. Seen from the south, at first sight it looks more like a tower than a bridge, leaning upwards and outwards, the road seemingly ending in mid-air. It’s easy to see why some call it ‘the road to nowhere’. As you get closer, the bridge’s true profile is revealed and the optical illusion shattered. Its eight per cent incline is a daunting proposition nonetheless, but the S60 powers effortlessly up it, the car’s sophisticated suspension keeping it perfectly stable as the road rises and the side winds increase in intensity.
Waves crash below as we near the crest. Suddenly we’re over the top, and a calm descends. The road unfurls ahead of us, snaking between rocks and sea. It feels like another invitation to simply drive, to enjoy more of what this car – and this country – has to offer. It’s an invitation we accept without a moment’s hesitation.